Articles Posted in Reasonable Accommodations

A federal judge in New Jersey recently dismissed an employee’s disability discrimination claim because she had signed an agreement shortening the statute of limitations to bring employment law claims against her employer. A statute of limitations is the deadline to file a lawsuit. Different legal claims have different statutes of limitations. For example, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) has a two year statute of limitations, meaning employees working in New Jersey ordinarily have two years to file discrimination lawsuits against their employers under the LAD.

The Facts of the Case

Ann M. Gavin worked for AT&T Services, Inc. She had several problems and pain in her feet and legs that made it difficult for her to walk, including a stress fracture in her right knee, psoriatic arthritis, and pustular psoriasis on her heel. She asked AT&T for permission to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. She eventually resigned because the company would not let her work from home five days per week. She then filed a disability discrimination lawsuit under the LAD.

In two previous articles, I discussed the case of Thomas Bowers, an Information Technology Analyst who successfully appealed his race discrimination claim and his retaliation claim against the New Jersey Judiciary. Mr. Bowers was also successful on his appeal of his claims that the judiciary forced him to resign by refusing to provide him a reasonable accommodation for his disability, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

Mr. Bowers claims he experienced mental and physical distress as a result of the race discrimination, harassment, and retaliation he experienced at work. His doctor diagnosed him with Anxiety Disorder, and suggested that he take medical leave from June 6 to July 1, 2007. Mr. Bowers’ doctor subsequently extended his medical several times, and ultimately indicated Mr. Bowers would be ready to return to work on October 1, 2007.

On August 30, 2007, the Judiciary warned Mr. Bowers he was about to exceed his 12 weeks of protected FMLA leave. It told him he could extend his leave of absence by using his vacation time, but that he would run out of vacation time on September 6. The Judiciary warned Mr. Bowers that if he did not return to work by September 10, it would consider him to be on “an unauthorized leave of absence,” and he would be subject to discipline.

On September 4, Mr. Bowers’ lawyer informed the Judiciary that Mr. Bowers would not return to work until October 1. The Judiciary responded that it expected him to return to work on September 10, and repeated that he would be subject to discipline if he did not return to work by that date. The Judiciary claimed it had “experienced significant operational hardship during his absence,” and could not accommodate his disability as a result. The Judiciary subsequently fired Mr. Bowers, effective September 10, 2007, because he had failed to return to work.

The Appellate Division concluded that a jury could reasonably conclude that the Judiciary failed to provide Mr. Bowers a reasonable accommodation for his disability, in violation of the LAD. It noted that Monmouth County did not post Mr. Bowers’ vacant position until October 2008, and did not fill his position until January 20, 2009. It is unclear why the Judiciary could not have accommodated Mr. Bowers’ disability by placing him on an unpaid medical leave through the end of September, and allowing him to return to work on October 1. If it had done so, his position would have been vacant for only 3 weeks, instead of remaining vacant until January 20. The Court noted that although the Judiciary claims budgetary constraints prevented it from replacing Mr. Bowers’ sooner, a jury might reach a different conclusion. Accordingly, it found that the evidence could support a claim of failure to accommodate a disability in violation of the LAD.

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Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided a case with an important lesson for employees requesting time off due to a disability, and the employment law attorneys who represent them. Specifically, in Prigge v. Sears Holding Corp., the Third Circuit dismissed an employee’s disability discrimination case on the basis that the employee was fired for failing to provide all of information his employer requested about his medical absences, and lied to the company about his disability. The Third Circuit is the federal court that handles appeals from the District of New Jersey.

John Prigge worked for Sears Holding Corp., as a store coach, from April 2007 through February 2008. Mr. Prigge was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He began feeling ill in December 2007, and took at least two days off from work and had to leave work early on several other occasions. However, he lied to his supervisors by claiming he needed the time off for radiation treatment due to a recurrence of his prostate cancer.

Mr. Prigge was subsequently hospitalized for a week in late January 2008 because his depression had gotten worse and he was having suicidal thoughts. When he was released from the hospital, he contacted his supervisor and told him he had been absent because he suffers from bipolar disorder and had been at a mental health hospital. Mr. Prigge’s boss told him he could not return to work until he submitted doctor’s notes from both the hospital and the physician who had treated his prostate cancer. The next day, Mr. Prigge admitted to his boss that he had not actually undergone prostate cancer treatment in December 2007 or January 2008.Third Circuit Court of Appeals.jpg

On April 8, 2010, in the case of Colwell v. Rite Aid Corporation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that employers can be required to change an employee’s work shift to accommodate the employee’s disability. The Third Circuit is the federal appellate court that covers several states, including New Jersey.

The Facts of Colwell v. Rite Aid Corporation

Jeanette Colwell worked as a cashier at a Rite Aid store. On some days she worked the day shift (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and on other days she worked the night shift (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.).

New York’s Appellate Division recently recognized that a disabled employee working in New York may be entitled to take extended medical leave under the New York State and New York City Human Rights Law.

The case involved Deborah Phillips, a civil service employee for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS). After Ms. Phillips had worked for DHS for 18 years, she took a 3 month medical leave for a serious medical condition, stage III breast cancer. Ms. Phillips asked her employer to extend her medical leave for a full year. DHS denied her request because she had exceeded her entitlement to 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and was ineligible for additional unpaid medical leave under the Department’s policy. DHS told her that if she did not return to work by October 30, 2006, the date on which she originally agreed to return to work, she would be subject to disciplinary action, or fired.

Ms. Phillips then asked DHS if she could take any additional medical leave. The City denied her request, again telling her that if she did not to return to work by October 30, she would be fired and would lose her medical benefits. Ms. Phillips did not return to work, and DHS eventually fired her.

Employers must Offer Reasonable Accommodations
If it Is Obvious Disabled Employee Needs One

An employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee if it is obvious the employee needs a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, even if the employee never requested an accommodation or does not think he needs one. That was the ruling reached by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on July 2, 2008.

In that case, Brady v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc<, Patrick S. Brady sued Wal-Mart and two of his supervisors under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA&”), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq., and the New York Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law 290, et seq.

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